The Fight Over Fracking

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Until Gasland, few Americans had heard of fracking. Unless you lived in one of the hundreds of rural communities affected – places like Wetzel County, West Virginia and Leroy, Pennsylvania, all lightly populated and far from the eye of media scrutiny – your image of natural gas was likely painted by the industry’s aggressive, ubiquitous, and well-funded “Clean Gas” p.r. campaign, which uses sun-dappled images of pristine nature and laughing children to portray gas as the happy, lifesaving fuel of a brave new world – so domestically abundant and environmentally friendly you just want to throw it a ticker-tape parade, if not tickle its tummy. The campaign successfully created the perception, even among the otherwise environmentally savvy, that gas is a fossil fuel without the notorious downsides of other fossil fuels.

Fox himself knew nothing about fracking when an energy firm offered him $100,000 to drill on his family’s land in rural Milanville, Pennsylvania, a couple hours’ drive east of the recent Leroy spill. Before accepting, he looked into the experiences of others that had accepted industry offers to drill their land around the country. What he found made a dark mockery of the company’s claims. Soon he was on the cross-country investigative odyssey documented in Gasland, which did for fracking what Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring did for pesticides. Upon its nomination for an Oscar, a broad coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a rare joint statement praising Fox for having “catapulted … hydraulic fracturing into the national conversation.”

“Josh created a people’s history of gas drilling,” says the actor Mark Ruffalo, who lives in western New York state across the Delaware River from a Pennsylvania drilling site and was already active on the issue when he met Fox at Gasland’s Sundance premiere. “He captured the human toll in a way that gives voice to people who didn’t have one.”

Rudimentary fracking technology has been around since the 1940s, but its use was rare until the last decade, when breakthroughs made its widespread application possible. Under the Bush administration, the quantity of gas procured by fracking rose from one percent to nearly a quarter of national production. Key to this growth was a seal of approval from Bush’s EPA – a seal now judged by scientists and federal regulators as premature. The growth of fracking was given further impetus by a provision in the 2005 Energy Act, known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempted gas drilling from EPA enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, gas companies are not required to report the chemicals they injected into underground gas veins across the country. (In November 2010, a Democratic Congress asked the EPA to review the Bush policy, and most firms have since agreed to voluntarily list the chemicals used. It’s worth noting that reporting them does not render them less toxic.) 

Since releasing Gasland, Fox, a veteran theater company director, has spent a good deal of his time in Washington, D.C., where he often visits, sometimes with Ruffalo in tow, lobbying Congress and federal agencies. “The regulators at the EPA and Justice Departments are dying to do their jobs – it’s the lawmakers who are the problem,” says Fox. “Obama’s people are not listening. We led a letter campaign in which thousands of people wrote the president expressing concern over drilling in their communities. The White House sent back a form letter about the importance of national parks. We were like, ‘Did they send us the wrong letter?’”

In early May, energy secretary Steven Chu announced the creation of a panel tasked with studying the environmental impacts of fracking and coming up with recommend guidelines for state and federal regulators. The panel of seven, which has six months to issue its report, is led by former CIA chief John Deutch, currently director of Cheniere Energy, a Houston-based firm and a major player in the development of liquefied natural gas. (The company’s slogan is, “North America’s LNG Gateway.”)

Fox is trying to keep an open mind about the White House initiative, but does not find the line-up encouraging.

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